“Dark creatures are more fun” – Interview with Joseph Delaney

Posted by Chloe Buckley on November 30, 2012 in Interviews, Reviews tagged with , , , , , , ,

“Dark creatures are more fun”

Interview with Joseph Delaney / Review of Slither’s Tale

Slither’s Tale

Publisher: Bodley Head (27 Sep 2012)

ISBN-10: 0370332172

ISBN-13: 978-0370332178

Joseph Delaney is the author of the spectacularly successful dark fantasy series, The Wardstone Chronicles, written for children and young adults. The novels tell the story of Tom Ward, a farmer’s son apprenticed to the County ‘Spook’ on his twelfth birthday.  Tom and the ‘Spook’ live and work at the edge of their community, protecting the folk of ‘the County’ from supernatural threats of ‘the dark’, malign creatures such as ghosts, boggarts, and witches. The books weave folklore, classical mythology and fantasy with gothic horror, creating a unique fantasy world that has proved immensely popular with readers of all ages.

The first novel, The Spook’s Apprentice, was published in 2004, winning both the Sefton and Hampshire Book Awards.  Since then, the Spook and Tom have appeared in over ten books in and The Wardstone Chronicles are published in 27 countries in translation, notably the US, Australia, South Africa and, most recently, Slovakia. A film based on the series, The Seventh Son, is also due to be released in the US next year.

The timeless fantasy world of The Wardstone Chronicles, known as ‘The County’, has widespread appeal, though it is deeply rooted in the real landscape, history and folktales of the writer’s home county of Lancashire, England. Joseph Delaney’s use of real landscapes, places and names from Lancashire history creates an unsettling blurring of reality with fantasy, of history with fiction:  In The Spook’s Curse, something old and powerful lurks underneath the catacombs of Priestown (Preston); in The Spook’s Battle Tom must venture into the villages of Pendle, which are inhabited by clans of gruesome and cunning witches, the strongest and most formidable keeping Tom’s family captive at ‘Malkin Tower’; and in The Spook’s Blood a seductive demon from the wilds of Eastern Europe holds the locals of Todmorden in her terrible power.

As the series progresses, The Wardstone Chronicles increasingly take on the dimensions of epic fantasy, and look outward to landscapes, myths and stories from far beyond the borders of the northern English county in which they originate. Nonetheless, the books remain rooted in a particular sense of place and play with the gothic potential of Lancashire’s wild landscapes and gruesome history. This is a world where the outlandish and excessive tendencies of gothic fantasy mingle with real places and real histories, modifying them and opening them up to possibility.

I met with Delaney in October, during his most recent book tour. He was giving a talk at Clitheroe Library, a location at the very heart of Lancashire’s gothic landscape. The library itself looks across to the brooding mass of Pendle Hill, and the outlying villages one passes on the way to the town are now famous for their association with one of the most extensive and well-documented witch trials of Early Modern England – The trial of the Pendle Witches, 1612. Barley, Roughlee, Newchurch and Downham are now all on the Pendle Witches’ tourist trail, but they resonate with Delaney fans too, for they are a part of ‘the County’, and home to the hoard of gruesome witches Tom and the Spook must face in numerous books.  Joseph Delaney’s Pendle, for all its gothic excesses, supernatural inhabitants and gruesome witches, is perhaps where The Wardstone Chronicles most intersect with real history and real landscapes. Clitheroe library itself, though not featuring in the events of 1612, resonates with the aesthetics of both versions of Pendle. It is a grade II listed building, originally the site of a seventeenth century courthouse and would make an appropriate setting for one of Delaney’s books. Locals convicted of various misdemeanors were once locked in its underground dungeons, hewn from solid rock, located in caverns underneath the building itself. These still exist today, next to an unassuming, brightly lit and pleasant library workroom. Upstairs, the venue for Delaney’s talk recalls the claustrophobia and strict authority of ages past, its high walls adorned with the crests of local dignitaries, its Gothic Revival style wooden paneling creating an apt sense of medieval claustrophobia.

Joseph was giving the talk to promote his most recent book, Slither’s Tale, the eleventh book in the series so far. Nonetheless, the talk was wide ranging and touched on many aspects of Delaney’s writing.  The event was well attended, with the age of audience members ranging from primary school age, through to teens and unaccompanied adults. The range of audience members is testament to the fact that Delaney’s work, like most other contemporary children’s gothic, attracts readers from well beyond the range it is marketed to.

Delaney proves to be an informal speaker, who talks easily about the writing process. In some senses, he pitches his talk to the younger members of the audience, demystifying for them the writing process, the world of publishing. Before becoming a writer, Delaney taught in schools and listening to him encourage the children to try their own hand at writing, one can’t help but feel that there’s still a touch of the English teacher about him. And yet, we are far from the earnest purpose of the English classroom here. Indeed, Delaney seems to relish the most grisly and gruesome details of his stories and treats us to a reading of his short story, ‘Dirty Dora’.

“My name is Dirty Dora Deane and I’m a dead witch. Some call me Dirty because I spit thick slimy gobs of spittle to mark my territory.”

He stops and wonders what teachers must make of him and his stories when they invite him in to schools to speak. After all, slimy gobs of dead witch spittle are hardly the most gruesome thing The Wardstone Chronicles have to offer. The books are full of the grotesque and the repulsive, packed with violence and gore as well as truly terrifying and traumatic moments. Later on, during our interview, I ask him about whether or not he ever feels compelled to censor any of the more horrifying aspects of the tales for his younger readers.

“I don’t censor myself much. You have to censor what is appropriate. You know what’s too much. I suppose I’m doing it all the time unconsciously. In my second book, The Spook’s Curse, I did consider showing the scene where a man has his leg sawn off.  We see the Priest put the teeth of the blade of the saw onto the leg, but then he tells Tom to leave. It happens off screen. I suppose in an adult book you would show it. But do you really need to hear the leg being sawn off, to see the blood splashing up onto the ceiling and gushing down the wall, running into the crack on the church floor? It would have been good! But I did cut it. I suppose you have a sense of what you can get away with.”

Has he ever been asked to cut anything by an editor?

“The only thing that was cut was to do with blood. Alice and Tom are in a tree and he’s got a cut on his forehead. She’s got her herbs, but there’s no water. In my version she licks the cut with her tongue. They didn’t like that at Random House. They didn’t tell me I couldn’t put it in, but my editor did suggest that it would be better if it could be avoided… the blood, the tongue. In the end I wrote the scene with a storm, and the water came rushing down the inside of the hollow trunk. Alice dabbed her leaf on that. That was the only time I was ever censored, though it was never strictly censored. I wonder, now, why that was…”

The event at Clitheroe library also featured children’s horror and dark fantasy author, Jon Mayhew, who entertained the audience with disturbing ghost stories and urban legends from his home town of Liverpool. Delaney and Mayhew are, of course, part of a much larger trend for frightening fiction published for children in the past decade. I asked Joseph if he thought that the popularity of horror and gothic for children has occurred alongside a breaking down of taboos about what one can write about in a book marketed for children?

“I think you can get away with a lot more now than you could at one time. Parents, librarians, and teachers are more open now. You gradually break down the barriers. Although, there was a children’s writer on television recently who was saying that he felt it had gone ‘too far’. He thinks that books now do horrible things to children. He included himself in this, saying ‘I went too far.’ He’s obviously pulling back now. I’m not convinced. What is ‘too far’ anyway? Is this fiction really harming people?”

In text illustration of Grimalkin

Tellingly, Delaney’s most recent book, Slither’s Tale, is perhaps one of the most disturbing installments in the series to date. It also represents the most significant departure with the gothic geography of ‘the County’. The story takes place in lands far to the north, in the Arctic Circle, and concerns itself with characters and events utterly unfamiliar to Tom Ward and the Spook.  Indeed, it has the feel of a spin-off, and constitutes a break with the traditional fantasy elements that structure the rest of the series. Rather than being a story of the hero battling the dark, Slither’s Tale is the story of a monster told by a monster. Delaney has made such departures before, most recently in I am Grimalkin, a story told from the perspective of fearsome witch assassin with filed teeth and a necklace of thumb bones cut from her fallen enemies. But this time it feels different. For all her darkness, Grimalkin is working with Tom against a common enemy, and allies herself, however temporarily, with the hero’s cause. Slither has no noble cause to fight for: he is a monstrous creature with big teeth, a hairy, brutish body and a thirst for human blood. He is a warrior, with a warrior’s code, but he is always pragmatic, acting out of expediency and self-interest. In the novel, Slither agrees to protect a dying farmer’s three daughters, and take them to a place of safety. Slither’s bargain, though, costs the farmer dearly. Slither is neither a monster to be vanquished, nor one that can be redeemed. As the series has progressed, has Delaney become more interested in the narrative possibilities offered by monstrous figures like Slither?

“Dark creatures are more fun. My editor said to me that my best characters were the witches – they’re female, they’re devious and they talk. You’ve got to get the character talking to get it to come to life.  A monster in a corner with big teeth is not real in a way, but if it talks to you… “

Slither is certainly a good talker. His first-person narration is equal parts disturbing and laugh out loud funny. The characterisation of Slither, like that of witch assassin Grimalkin, creates a sense of relativism, forcing the reader into an uncomfortable identification with the monster, allowing the reader to laugh with him as he makes his transgressions. How has this movement of identification away from the hero and towards the monster come about?

“My characterisation of the witches has certainly evolved over the series. Grimalkin, for example, has become much more complex. She was a difficult character to write at first. I was worried: How can I get people to empathise with a character who kills people and cuts off their thumb bones? But she’s got a code, her own rules. It’s the same with Slither. He doesn’t understand why he offends the girls sometimes. What’s the matter, have I belched? Why are they looking at me in horror? All I’ve done is lick up a bit of blood. That’s his nature. You are what you are.”

There is obviously humour available in these identifications with the monstrous. Slither’s Tale seems to me to be funniest of Delaney’s works to date, as well as being one of the most disturbing. Does Delaney think that there is room for playfulness and fun in the bleak world of The Wardstone Chronicles?

“I think there is. Like that line, ‘never trust a woman’, from the first book. That’s playfulness there. There is room for humour. Not a joke every three lines, but there’s pleasure to be found in being terrified. It’s good when it’s gone too, but you feel alive when you’re terrified.”

Yet, the humour of Slither’s Tale in no way undercuts its bleak and uncompromising narrative trajectory. Slither’s journey to take the girls to safety is no simple tale of redemption; he is motivated by the pay-off he will receive when the job is complete.  As long as Slither takes the youngest girls to safety, he gets the eldest girl to do with as he wishes. And what he wishes is to sell Nessa to slave traders. Some of Delaney’s male characters exhibit a strain of misogyny that can be difficult to swallow. The misogyny we see in its more attenuated form in the Spook’s statement in the first book – ‘Never trust a woman!’ – we now see in Slither’s Tale in its most brutal and violent form. The Kobalos beastmen trade in young human girls, whom they call ‘purrai’, selling them to one another as slaves, food and breeding stock. The girls are beaten, cut, and kept in underground pens for breeding. It’s pretty bleak reading. And one never gets the sense in the book that Slither will find the motivation to rebel against his people’s barbaric practices. Indeed, he barely questions them. And, yet, to read Slither’s Tale as a misogynist book is to miss the point. The situation Nessa finds herself in is not one that can be simply reversed by a heroic deed. Slither’s people cannot be taken down by a noble band of fighters. Such a solution would be too easy, too simple, and unbelievable. This kind of solution, the one that heals everything and makes the world better, is the sort that The Wardstone Chronicles consistently refuse. This is the ‘darker edge’ to Delaney’s work that reviewers often comment on.  Amanda Craig, in The Times, once stated that The Wardstone Chronicles was for readers who had outgrown Harry Potter. What does Delaney make of these comments?

“I wasn’t happy about that! I thought it might offend a lot of Harry Potter fans! They’re bound to think, ‘who the hell’s this guy?’ But the publishers picked it up as a sound-bite, and it’s stuck. I think the ‘darker edge’ of the books probably comes from me and the kind of stuff I like. I don’t like books or films in which you know the hero will never die, where you know they’re always going to win. I haven’t decided what will happen to Tom in the final book. In The Spook’s Blood I toyed with the idea of finishing off John Gregory [The Spook]. He could have been dead there and then. I was tottering on the edge. And since then he’s faded, I think, become weaker. He’s lost his wind.”

Sacrifice is a theme of Delaney’s books. His characters are forced into making sacrifices that cause them irreparable trauma and damage. Nessa’s sacrifice in Slither’s Tale, is an echo of the one faced by Tom elsewhere in the series. Nessa finds out about her father’s bargain with Slither in a letter written in his dying hand, though she realises that his decision to sacrifice her over the other girls was made long before.  Tom Ward, too, is given up by his parents in service to the Spook, and is asked by his mother to make terrible sacrifices. In the course of the story he discovers that his tender ‘Mam’ was once a powerful witch, who has taken it upon herself to fight the Dark. Her marriage to a County farmer was, it is revealed, only a means to an end, as is Tom. Both Tom and Nessa come to the realisation that the unconditional love they assumed their parents gave them was an empty illusion. Where does this rather bleak representation of the parent-child relationship spring from?

“Some of it starts with my Mum. My mum made me go to work when I had the flu. She didn’t coddle me. She made sure I did my duty. Tom’s ‘mam’ is the same in that way. As for the other complexities, I’m playing with it. I’m still seeing where it might go. Tom’s mam did care for him, when she was ‘Mam’, but that’s only a fraction of who she is. She became a human woman and became his mother, but even then she was using him. He is a tool to a certain extent. He’ll have to accept that in time. Tom has evolved and changed. He’s not going to be the nice lad he once was.”

As Delaney points out during his talk, he began writing the books with the idea that the Spook was his ‘Gandalf’, an all-powerful, almost flawless figure who guides the hero on his journey. But it is clear that John Gregory is not like that. Nor are any of Delaney’s characters. Why do his characters – those on the side of good as well as those on the side of ‘the dark’ – end up far murkier than is usually allowed in both children’s fiction and traditional fantasy?

“I get all my characterisation out of dialogue. I thought Bill Arkwright [The Spook at Caster in The Spook’s Mistake] was going to be a wimp. It’s only when he starts to talk that you realise that he’s a tough ex-soldier, riddled with problems. He’s a near-alcoholic. I discovered that as Bill talked. He became a more interesting character. None of my people are totally good. They’ve got lots of problems. They’re not totally balanced and in control of their lives. This makes them more interesting.”

For me, as a reader, the most interesting character in this respect is Alice, the young witch from Pendle who ends up working with Tom and the Spook. We are never completely sure of Alice’s motivations or allegiances. She is capricious, wilful and acts in accordance with her own strong desires rather than always with what seems right. As the series progresses, one feels that she could quite easily abandon the quest to save the County and give herself over to the Dark. Her choices and actions continually have an effect on Tom’s character too. Does Delaney feel that Alice – the witch – is necessary in order to make Tom – the hero – a more interesting character?

“He would be a bit of a wimp without her, wouldn’t he? He would be a bit wet. He’s been confronted by Alice; he’s had to deal with Alice. Without that I think he’d just be this ‘good lad’, well brought up by him mum and dad. It’s this weird girl who holds his hand that changes him. She’s dangerous and this brings out more in him. The witches are scary and often ruthless – they are strong females, especially Alice and Grimalkin.”

Indeed, I would say that Delaney’s witches of Pendle are some of the most interesting and complex representations of witches to be found in recent children’s fiction, and fantasy more generally. In the wake of the 400th year anniversary of the real Pendle Witches trial, much has been published that is invested in recuperating the innocence of those executed in 1612. In writing about the Pendle witches, commentators are keen to reveal the injustice of a dark period of Early Modern history. This is, in part, connected to a political agenda that takes the injustices of the past as a metaphor for the problems facing contemporary society – issues such as scapegoating, prejudice, personal freedoms, and child abuse. All of this is very necessary, of course, but it seems to leave little room for exploring the possibilities offered by more fantastic, gothic or horrifying witches. Apart from Jeanette Winterson’s novel The Daylight Gate, published on the 400th year anniversary of the trial, Delaney’s books are unique among twenty-first century texts for their representation of Pendle witches as cruel, grotesque, cunning, powerful and terrifying. I notice in his talk that he was keen to distance his witches from ‘real’ people accused of witchcraft in the past.  Why does he feel the need to do this?

“In my talk earlier I showed the picture with the press [an image from the Spook’s Bestiary of a witch being ‘pressed’ under a slab]. I want to tell my audience that some people in the past did put stones on accused witches; they did jab them with pins; they did ‘swim’ them. And, of course, that’s horrible. I’ve started to make that point more and more now. I always say, ‘I write for fantasy. I write for fun. My witches are fictional witches.’ I make this point to distance myself from these people who get really offended. But also because I do think that children have to learn the difference between fiction and fact.”

But why did Delaney put aside the historical story of the Pendle witches in favour of a fantastical version?

“People look back and think that what happened to those women was appalling. They think about what happened to women all over Europe. But that wasn’t really why I put it aside. It was partly to avoid criticism, of course. But I didn’t want to get involved with dates and names and so on. If you try to tell that story you are going to be trapped by it. You could weave a good story in and out of it – there’s enough material there from the original trial – but I thought it was best to throw it away. I kept some of the names. I kept Roger Nowell and a few little touches here and there – things like Reed Hall, the name Tibb for a familiar. But mine are all different. That way you free yourself. You are trapped by the moment if you try to do a version of it.”

Talking of versions, what does Delaney make of the forthcoming film? In his talk prior to our interview he seems ambivalent. In fact, he makes a joke of his visit to the film set last year. “I don’t think they really wanted me to visit,” he laughs. He recalls meeting the film’s star – a wild-eyed and intense Jeff Bridges in character as ‘The Spook’: “He got plaster and dust from the film set all over my best suit!” Delaney thinks that Jeff Bridges will make a good Spook, but that Ben Barnes is too old to play Tom. But, of course, he has little say in the film’s direction. Does he think the film will be a very different version of the story than the one found in the books? Does he think it will be marketed at an older audience?

“There will be a snog in the film, I’m sure. There’s bound to be Romantic interest. It has made me think, actually, to what extent should Tom and Alice be involved. Should there be a snog? Could they have almost sex? How far could you go? I don’t think I will do that. It doesn’t seem right. But in my books Tom is now sixteen. Soon he will be seventeen. If he survives, he’ll be the new Spook: a man. Alice might still be around. If they are still friends – if Alice hasn’t gone to ‘the dark’ – the relationship would have to be a much older one.”

The books have clearly developed in terms of their complexity. They have certainly become darker, bleaker, murkier. It seems as though The Wardstone Chronicles imagine an audience who are growing up, becoming mature – perhaps even becoming more cynical. Does Delaney have an audience I mind when he writes?

“No. I don’t. I write for myself. I write on the page what I want to read. It’s just that I have to constrain it a little bit because I know that, in some cases, the readers who will see it won’t be that old. I do tone it down, probably without thinking about it. I suppose I just know what seems right. But, I am writing for myself. I don’t visualise some sixteen-year old, or some fourteen-year old sat there reading my book. I do sometimes read my work aloud as I write. It’s first person narration so it’s meant to be read aloud. It’s more of a voice than a written story.  I happily accept a ‘young adult’ label for my writing, though, especially for the later works – the three most recent books especially.”

And finally, does Joseph Delaney think that good writing for children ought to be scary?

“I agree with that. Horror fiction is a way to experience creepy creatures, scary landscapes and architecture, and moments of violence and terror, but from a situation of safety. After all, a child can always put the book down! I don’t want to do a gore-fest, chopping off demon’s heads, blood splattering everywhere all the time. Though, that does come into it occasionally! I want to scare my reader. I want to make the books creepy. ‘Not to be read after dark’ – I didn’t invent that sound-bite, but it is true. I want to write something that will make you look over your shoulder.”

Slither’s Tale by Joseph Delaney was published this September by Bodley Head. The next installment of The Wardstone Chronicles will be published next Spring, with the series finale due in Autumn 2013.

The Seventh Son is in post-production, due for release also in 2013.

For more info on The Wardstone Chronicles and Joseph Delaney’s fiction, visit:



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